Western Montana’s River Lovers Brace for Early Runoff

By ASSOCIATED PRESS via the Flathead Beacon Newsapper

MISSOULA — Rivers throughout western Montana could get lower than normal this summer, as an unusually low snowpack has melted away two or three weeks earlier than usual.

National Weather Service hydrologist Ray Nickless said the northwest corner of the state is especially at risk of seeing low summer flows.

“Some of those are close, if not at, the lowest point on record for this time of year,” Nickless told the Missoulian. “The Yaak, Fisher, Thompson and St. Regis rivers are all at real low levels. The northwest just never accumulated much snow, although the Clark Fork and Bitterroot drainages did.”

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Fall colors along the South Fork Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on Oct. 13, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | FlatheadBeacon

The Swan River gauge just above Bigfork showed it flowing at 3.72 feet Friday, compared to last year’s mark of 5.77 feet. In 1997 on the same date, it was flowing at 7.34 feet.

The North Fork of the Jocko River near Arlee looks poised to use up its snowpack at or before its record earliest point around the second of June, according to snowpack monitoring sites. Lolo Pass has already melted out, just a day after its record earliest date. The Poorman Creek and Bear Mountain Snotel sites west of Kalispell both set new earliest melt-out dates this spring in early May.

For river recreationists, the sooner they get out on the water the better.

“The word I’m hearing, especially from outfitters, is now is a great time to be on the river,” said American Rivers director Scott Bosse in Bozeman. “The fishing got better earlier than usual, but you better get out and get it while you can.”

In Missoula, Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures owner Wayne Fairchild said both the Lochsa and Alberton Gorge whitewater destinations looked strong this year.

“We won’t see a really high flow in the Alberton Gorge, but high flows mean no business,” Fairchild said. “We’re already floating it right now. And the Clark Fork there is a main tributary, so it holds water all summer long. The people who have to be worried are the fly-fishing guides. They could have temperature problems later in the summer.”

Melting snow has a major influence on river water temperatures, keeping the streams cool as summer air temperatures climb. Early runoffs can result in water getting above 70 degrees, which stresses trout and other fish and often triggers the closure of popular fishing rivers.

And the forecast for June and the coming summer remains in flux.

While a strong El Nino signal from the Pacific Ocean has many parts of the Southwest worried about continued drought conditions, in Montana, it usually results in dry winters.

The summer is more likely determined by the number and intensity of thunderstorm systems coming off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

“I’m not overly concerned about low streamflows yet,” Bosse said. “I just came back from southern Utah. As low as our snowpack is, it’s a heck of a lot better than elsewhere in the U.S.”